Diotima of Mantinea

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Diotima of Mantinea
Διοτίμα Μαντινίκη
Jadwiga Łuszczewska, who used the pen name Diotima, posing as the ancient seer in a painting by Józef Simmler, 1855
EraAncient philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolClassical Greek
Notable ideas
Platonic love

Diotima of Mantinea (/ˌdəˈtmə/; Greek: Διοτίμα; Latin: Diotīma) is the name or pseudonym of an ancient Greek character in Plato's dialogue Symposium, possibly an actual historical figure, indicated as having lived circa 440 B.C. Her ideas and doctrine of Eros as reported by the character of Socrates in the dialogue are the origin of the concept today known as Platonic love.


The name Diotima means one who honors or is honored by Zeus, and her descriptor as "Mantinikê" (Mantinean) seems designed to draw attention to the word "mantis", which suggests an association with prophecy. Explicitly described as a foreigner (ξένη) (201e) and as wise (σοφὴ) in not only the subject of love but also of many other things (ἄλλα πολλά), she is often associated with priestcraft by a majority of scholars insofar as: 1 - she advises the Athenians on sacrifice (thusiai) which delayed the onset of a plague (201d), and 2 - her speech on eros utilizes the language of sacrifice (thusia), prophecy (mantike), purification (katharsis), mystical cultic practices like initiation (teletai) and culminates in revelations/visions (202e). Her descriptor "Mantinikê" (Mantinean) also confirms these associations since the adjective includes the word nikê, "Diotima Mantinikê" a pun in Greek indicating "Diotima prophet of victory".[1] As Evans writes, "Mantinike also contains what sounds like the word for "victory" (nike); as a pun in Greek, Diotima Mantinike thus would sound like "Diotima from Prophet-victory." Socrates provides additional significant information for his fellow symposiasts about Diotima Mantinike that hints at her victorious prophetic powers. He recalls how, at a time in the past when the Athenians were about to be beset by a plague, she was able to delay the plague for ten years by prescribing which civic animal sacrifices (thusiai) the Athenians should perform. Given the Athenians' experiences during the Peloponnesian War, including the devastations of the urban plagues of 429 and 427 BCE and the Spartan defeat of Athens in 404–403, Diotima's name "Prophet-victory" is not without heavy irony for Plato's original audience." (2006, 7) In one manuscript her description was mistranscribed mantikê ('mantic woman' or seeress) rather than Mantinikê, which may be another reason for the reception of Diotima as a "priestess".[2][3] Other scholars like Martha Nussbaum have noted that Diotima's name stands in direct contrast to Timandra who, according to Plutarch, was Alcibiades' consort. Believing Diotima to be a fiction, Nussbaum argues that

we are moved to ask about her name, and why Plato should have chosen it. The name means "honor the god." Alcibiades had a famous mistress, a courtesan whose name history records as Timandra. This name means "honor the man." Here, then, Socrates, too, takes a mistress: a priestess instead of a courtesan, a woman who prefers the intercourse of the pure mind to the pleasures of the body, who honors divine over merely human things.

— The Speech of Alcibiades. Philosophy and Literature, Volume 3, Number 2, Fall 1979, pp. 131-172

Nussbaum admits though the possibility that Plutarch is using Timandra, herself possibly also a fiction, to purposely juxtapose Socratic eros and common eros.

Since there is no evidence for 'Diotima' outside Plato's Symposium, it has been doubted whether she was a real historical personage rather than a fictional creation. However, many of (though not all, see below regarding 'Callicles') the characters named in Plato's dialogues correspond to real people living in ancient Athens.[4] Plato was thought by some 19th and early 20th century scholars to have based Diotima on Aspasia, the companion of Pericles who famously impressed him by her intelligence and eloquence. This identification was recently revived, with additional suggestions, by Armand D'Angour in Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher. Aspasia herself is a character in Plato's dialogue Menexenus, and it has been argued that Diotima could be an independent historical woman known for her intellectual accomplishments, though she is otherwise unattested.[5]

In the Symposium, Diotima expounds ideas that are different from both Socrates's and Plato's, though with clear connections to both. Socrates also claims to have learned from her on more than one occasion. These indications have been used to argue for Diotima's independent existence;[6] but may account for why Plato does not directly attribute "Diotima's doctrine of Love" to a confirmed historical personage (her doctrine appears Platonic in relation to its introduction of Forms but also un-Platonic in its insistence on generation and reproduction).

A first century bronze relief found in Pompeii depicts Socrates and an unnamed female figure, along with a winged Eros; although some have supposed the seated woman in the image to be Diotima, others have argued her appearance (notably a necklace) would suggest she is in fact more likely to be Aphrodite or Aspasia. Writings from the second through the fifth centuries A.D. refer to Diotima as a real person, although Plato is probably their only basis for this. A second century AD reference to Diotima can be found in the works of Lucian.[7] The suggestion that she was a fictional creation was not introduced until the 15th century by Marsilio Ficino.[8] This hypothesis recalls the practice of using fictional characters in other Platonic dialogues (for instance Callicles in the Gorgias), and draws on the fact that Diotima is not mentioned by any contemporary sources and because her name and origin could be understood as symbolic (see above).

Role in Symposium[edit]

In Plato's Symposium the members of a party discuss the meaning of love. Socrates says that in his youth he was taught "the philosophy of love" by Diotima, who was a seer or priestess. Socrates also claims that Diotima successfully postponed the Plague of Athens. In a dialogue that Socrates recounts at the symposium, Diotima says that Socrates has confused the idea of love with the idea of the beloved. Love, she says, is neither fully beautiful nor good, as the earlier speakers in the dialogue had argued. Diotima gives Socrates a genealogy of Love (Eros), stating that he is the son of "resource (poros) and poverty (penia)". In her view, love drives the individual to seek beauty, first earthly beauty, or beautiful bodies. Then as a lover grows in wisdom, the beauty that is sought is spiritual, or beautiful souls. For Diotima, the most correct use of love of other human beings is to direct one's mind to love of wisdom, or philosophy.[9] The beautiful beloved inspires the mind and the soul and directs one's attention to spiritual things. One proceeds from recognition of another's beauty, to appreciation of Beauty apart from any individual, to consideration of Divinity, the source of Beauty, to love of Divinity.

. . . and directing his gaze from now, on towards beauty as a whole, he should turn to the great ocean of beauty, and in contemplation of it give birth to many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts in the abundance of philosophy. (Diotima to Socrates in Plato's Symposium.)

Relief of a woman holding a liver for hepatoscopy, possibly a depiction of Diotima of Mantineia.

Recent interpretations[edit]

Beginning in the 20th century, the dehistoricization of Diotima became a subject of interest for several scholars, including Mary Ellen Waithe.[8] In 2005, Margaret Urban Walker summarized Waithe's research, stating that "the evidence for Diotima's reality is substantial, even if not conclusive, and that her imaginary status appears to be a fifteenth-century fiction that stuck."[10]

In 2010, Australian novelist Gary Corby published The Pericles Commission, the first in a series of mystery novels taking place in ancient Athens. Diotima is a major recurring character, the love interest, assistant sleuth, and eventually wife of Corby's protagonist, Nicolaos. Corby's Diotima is a priestess of Artemis who was born the illegitimate daughter of a hetaira and an Athenian oligarch whose murder is Nicolaos's first commissioned investigation from Pericles.

In 2019 Oxford professor Armand D'Angour published Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, a historical, though partly fictionalized account of the life of Socrates. D'Angour writes "Since direct evidence for Socrates' youth is thin, oblique, and scattered, circumstantial evidence and historical imagination must be used to flesh out the few precious indications in the sources about his background and early days."[11] D'Angour argues that Aspasia is the model for Diotima because 1) she was the obvious candidate to be involved in the warding off of plague that Athenians will have expected to be brought on by Pericles' irreligious actions (his failure to bury the dead after his campaign against Samos in 440-39) and 2) the fact that 'Diotima' means 'honored by/honoring Zeus’; Pericles was called 'Zeus' in comedy and popular parlance, and he was notorious for the unusual honor that he bestowed on Aspasia. Nonetheless, no evidence for Aspasia's role in either advising or participating in expiatory rites is provided and as such her "obvious candidacy" to be involved in warding off the plague is unclear. Further, no evidence is provided for the argument that the Athenians believed the plague to be divine retribution for Pericles' actions in Samos.[12] Outside the possibility that the character in Plato's dialogue was based on an historical personage with the same name, see arguments of Evans and Nussbaum above for other interpretations of the symbolic employment of the name Diotima.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Evans, Nancy. "Diotima and Demeter as Mystagogues in Plato's Symposium." Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 2, 2006, pp. 1–27. JSTOR 3810989.
  2. ^ Riegel, Nicholas (2016). Cosmópolis: mobilidades culturais às origens do pensamento antigo. Eryximachus and Diotima in Plato’s Symposium: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra. ISBN 978-989-26-1287-4.
  3. ^ Grote, George (1888). Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates. Chapter XXVI.
  4. ^ Ruby Blondell The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.31
  5. ^ Wider, Kathleen. "Women philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle". Hypatia vol 1 no 1 Spring 1986. Part of her argument focuses on the polemical point that all scholars who argued "for" a fictitious Diotima were male, and most used, as a starting point, Smith's uncertainty of her historical existence (Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870).
  6. ^ Salisbury, Joyce (2001). Encyclopedia of women in the ancient world. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1576070925. OCLC 758191338.
  7. ^ Lucian. Imagines. In Lucian, Vol. 4. Translated by A. M. Harmon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Publ., 1925, 289.
  8. ^ a b Waithe, Mary Ellen (1987). "Diotima of Mantinea". In Waithe, Mary Ellen (ed.). A History of Women Philosophers: Volume I: Ancient Women Philosophers, 600 BC–500 AD. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff. pp. 83–116. ISBN 9789024733484. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  9. ^ Plato, Symposium, 210a–212b
  10. ^ Urban Walker, Margaret (Summer 2005). "Diotima's Ghost: The Uncertain Place of Feminist Philosophy in Professional Philosophy". Hypatia. 20 (3): 153–164. doi:10.2979/hyp.2005.20.3.153. JSTOR 3811120.
  11. ^ D'Angour, Armand (2019). Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher. Bloomsbury. p. 5.
  12. ^ "Review of: Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher". Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

Further reading[edit]

  • Navia, Luis E., Socrates, the man and his philosophy, pp. 30, 171. University Press of America ISBN 0-8191-4854-7